Story type: Literature
Outside the railway station Colonel Baigent handed his carpet-bag to the conductor of the hotel omnibus, and stood for a moment peering about in the dusk, as if to take his bearings.
‘For The Dragon, sir?’ asked the conductor.
‘The Dragon?’ Yes, certainly,’ echoed Colonel Baigent, aroused by the name from the beginnings of a brown study. ‘So The Dragon is still standing, eh?’
”Twas standing all right when I left it, twenty minutes ago,’ the man answered flippantly; for to-night was Christmas Eve, and English hotel servants do not welcome guests who stay over Christmas.
But the colonel remarked nothing amiss in his tone. In fact, he was not listening. He stared out into the mirk beyond the flare of gas in the entrance-way, slowly bringing his mind to bear on the city at his feet, with its maze of dotted lights. The afternoon had been cold and gusty, with now and then a squall of hail from the north-west. The mass of the station buildings behind him blotted out whatever of daylight yet lingered. Eastward a sullen retreating cloud backed the luminous haze thrown up from hundreds of street-lamps and shop-windows–a haze that faintly silhouetted the clustered roofs. The roofs were wet. The roadway, narrowing as it descended the hill, shone with recent rain.
‘You may carry down my bag,’ said the colonel. ‘I will walk. Somewhere to the right here should be a road leading to Westgate, eh?’
‘Tisn’t the shortest way,’ the conductor objected.
‘I have plenty of time,’ said the colonel mildly.
Indeed, a milder-looking man for a hero–he had earned and won his V.C.–or a gentler of address, could scarcely be conceived; or an older-fashioned. His voice, to be sure, had a latent tone of command. But the patient face, with its drooping moustache and long gray side-whiskers; the short yet attenuated figure, in a tweed suit of no particular cut; the round felt hat, cheap tie, and elastic-sided boots–all these failed very signally to impress the conductor, who flung the carpet-bag inside the omnibus with small ceremony, and banged the door.
‘Right, Bill!’ he called.
”Oo is it?’ asked the driver, slewing round in the light of his near-side lamp.
‘Might be a commercial–if ’twasn’t for his bag, and his way of speakin’.’
The omnibus rattled off and down the hill. Colonel Baigent gazed after it, alone beneath the gas-lamp; for the few passengers who had alighted from his train had jostled past him and gone their ways, and his porter had turned back wearily into the station, where express and excursion trains had all day been running the Christmas traffic down to its last lees.
Colonel Baigent gazed after the omnibus, then back through the passage-way leading past the booking-office to the platform. All this was new to him. There had been no such thing as railway or railway station thirty-five years ago, when, a boy of seventeen just emancipated from school, he had climbed to the box-seat of the then famous ‘Highflyer’ coach, and been driven homewards to a Christmas in which the old sense of holiday mingled and confused itself with a new and wonderful feeling that school was over and done with for ever.
During his Indian exile he had nursed a long affection for the city; had collected and pored over books relating to it and its antiquities; and now, as he left the station and struck boldly into the footway on the right, he found himself surprisingly at home. The path led him over a footbridge, and along between high garden walls. But it led him surely enough to Westgate, and the spot occupied in Norman times (as he recalled) by five bordels or shanties, where any belated traveller (‘such as I to-night,’ thought the colonel) arriving after the gates were shut, might find hospitality for the love of God. The suburb here lay deserted. He halted, and listened to a footfall that died away into the darkness on his right. He felt at home again–here, wrapped around by the ghostly centuries as by the folds of a mantle, and warm within the folds.
Strange to say, the chill came on him as he passed under the arch of Westgate, and into view of the busy High Street, the lit shops, the passers-by jostling upon the pavements, the running newsboys, the hawkers with their barrows, the soldiers strolling five abreast down the middle of the roadway. Here was the whole city coming and going. Here, precisely as he had left it thirty-five years ago, it sprang back into life again, like an illuminated clockwork. No; he was wrong, of course. It had been working all the while, and without intermission, absorbed in its own business–buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage. He had dropped out, that was all.
The Christmas decorations, the jollity in the voices exchanging Christmas salutations, aggravated the poor colonel’s sense of homelessness, and seemed to mock it. One window displayed a huge boar’s head, grinning, with a lemon in its mouth. The proprietor of another had hung his seasonable wares on a small spruce fir, and lit it all over with coloured candles. A poulterer, three doors away, had draped his house-front, from the third story down, with what at first glance appeared to be a single heavy curtain of furs and feathers–string upon string of hares, of pheasants, of turkeys, fat geese, wild ducks.
This prevailing superabundant good cheer did not, however, extend to the visitor, as the colonel discovered, within the doorway of The Dragon. Nor was that doorway the old hospitable entrance through which the stage-coaches had rattled into a paved court lined with red-windowed offices. The new proprietor had blocked all this up with a flight of steps, and an arrangement of mahogany and plate-glass. There remained but the arch under which, these years ago, the stout coachman, as he swung his leaders sharp round to the entry, had warned passengers to duck their heads. The colonel was staring up at it when he became aware of a liveried boots holding the mahogany door open for him at the head of the steps, and with an expression that did not include ‘Welcome!’ among the many things that it said.
The boots too plainly was sullen, the young lady in the office curt and off-hand, the second and only waiter as nearly as possible mutinous. ‘All his blooming companions,’ he explained (though not precisely in these words), had departed to spend Christmas in the bosom of their families. He spoke cockney English, and, in reply to a question (for the colonel tried hard to draw him into conversation and dissipate his gloom), confessed that he came from Brixton.
Further than this he would not go. In a mortuary silence, the colonel, seated beneath a gasalier adorned (the mockery of it!) with a sprig of mistletoe, sipped his half-pint of sherry, and ate his way through three courses of a sufficiently good dinner. But better, says Solomon, is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.
Every time he raised his eyes they rested on the table at which he had dined with his father on the eve of being entered at school. The same table, the same heavy mahogany chairs–he recalled the scroll pattern on their backs. He could see himself there in the corner–a small boy, white in the face and weary with travel, divided between surmise of the morrow and tears for the home left behind. He could see his father seated there in profile, the iron-gray hair, the remembered stoop. Well, they were all gone now–all, missing whom that night he had come so near to breaking down and weeping. . . . Mother, sisters, brother, gone one by one during the years of his Indian exile, and himself now left the last of his race, unmarried, and never likely to marry. Why had he come? To revisit his old school? But the school would be closed for the Christmas holidays, the children dispersed to their homes and happy.
Matris et oscula . . .
He had ordered claret–a bottle of Lafitte, the best the house could produce–and the waiter, impressed a little by the choice, now appeared noiselessly, almost deferentially, at his elbow, and poured out a first glassful of the wine.
‘Where does that music come from?’–for the sound of an antiquated piano had been thrumming for some minutes from a distant room. The music was not ambitious–an old set of quadrille tunes. The colonel did not recognise it. He had no ear at all for music, and could just distinguish the quickstep of his regiment from ‘God save the Queen.’ In fact, when he paid any attention at all to music (and this was rare), it gave him no sensation beyond a vague discomfort.
‘It comes from the Assembly Room, sir, at the back of the Court.’
‘Ah! yes, I remember the old Assembly Room. Some one is giving a ball to-night?’
The waiter smiled indulgently. ‘Oh no, sir! It’s Miss Wallas’s dancing-class breaking up–that’s all.’
‘Breaking up?’ echoed the colonel, whose mind was sometimes a trifle slow in the uptake.
‘She rents the room alternate Fridays, sir, and usually gives ’em a little treat just before Christmas. I don’t know,’ pursued the waiter, meditatively laying two fingers wide on his chin, ‘as many people would call it a treat. But the little ‘uns likes dressing up in their evening frocks, and the buns and lemonade is well enough for their time of life. There used to be a fiddle too, as well as the piano; but the class hev fallen off considerable of late. The management don’t like it too well. But there’s a notion ‘twould be unfeelin’ to stop it. She’s been carrying it on all these years, and her aunt before her. But if it annoys you, sir, I can say a word at the office and get it stopped.’
‘Heaven forbid!’ said the colonel. But the music made him uncomfortable, nevertheless. It broke off, and started again upon a waltz tune. After the waltz came a mazurka, and after the mazurka another set of quadrilles. And still, as he sipped his claret, the successive tunes wove themselves into old memories haunting the coffee-room–ghostly memories! Yet he had no will to escape them. Outside he could see the crowd jostling to and fro on the opposite pavement. The lights within a chemist’s shop, shining through bottles of coloured water in its window, threw splashes of colour– green, crimson, orange–on the eager faces as they went by. Colonel Baigent rose half impatiently, drew down the blind, and, returning to his chair, sat alone with the ghosts.
The waiter brought dessert–a plateful of walnuts and dried figs. He cracked a walnut and peeled it slowly, still busy with his thoughts. For a while these thoughts were all in a far past; but by-and-by a stray thread carried him down to the year ‘fifty-seven– and snapped suddenly. His thoughts always broke off suddenly at the year ‘fifty-seven–the Mutiny year. In that year he had won his Victoria Cross and, along with it, a curious tone in his voice, an inexpressible gentleness with all women and children, certain ineradicable lines in his face (hidden though they were by his drooping moustache and absurd old-fashioned whiskers); also a certain very grave simplicity when addressing the Almighty in his prayers. But he never thought of the year ‘fifty-seven if he could help it. And as a spider, its thread snapping, drops upon the floor, so Colonel Baigent fell to earth out of his dreaming.
With a sudden impulse of his hands against the table’s edge, he thrust back the chair and stood erect. His bottle of claret was all but empty, and he bethought him that he had left his cigar-case upstairs. His bedroom lay on the farther side of the courtyard and on his way to it he passed the tall windows of the Assembly Room close enough to fling a glance inside.
The dancers were all children–little girls of all ages from eight to fourteen, in pretty frocks of muslin–pink, blue, and white; with a sprinkling of awkward boys in various fashion of evening dress. On his way back, having lit his cigar, he paused for a longer look. The piano was tinkling energetically, the company dancing a polka, and with a will. The boys were certainly an awkward lot, so the Colonel decided, and forthwith remembered his own first pair of white kid gloves and the horrible self-consciousness he had indued with them. He went back to the room where the waiter had laid his coffee.
The polka, as it proved, was the last dance on the programme; for the colonel had scarcely settled himself again before the piano strummed out ‘God save the Queen’–which, as has been said, was one of the tunes he knew. He stood erect, alone in the empty room, and so waited gravely for the last bar. A rush of feet followed; a pause for robing; then childish voices in the courtyard wishing each other ‘Good-night!’ and ‘A merry Christmas!’ Then a very long pause, and the colonel supposed that all the young guests were gone.
But they were not all gone; for as he resumed his seat, and reached out a hand for his case, to choose another cigar, he happened to throw a glance towards the doorway. And there, in the shadow of a heavy curtain draping it, stood a little girl.
She might have passed for a picture of Red Riding-Hood; for she wore a small scarlet cloak over her muslin frock, and the hood of it had been pulled forward and covered all but a margin of hair above the brows. The colour of her hair was a bright auburn, that of her eyebrows so darkly brown as to seem wellnigh black; and altogether she made a remarkable little figure, standing there in the doorway, with a pair of white satin dancing-shoes clutched in her hand.
‘Oh!’ said the colonel. ‘Good-evening!’
‘O-o-oh!’ answered the child, and with a catch, as it were, and a thrill in the voice that astonished him. Her eyes, fixed on his, grew larger and rounder. She came a pace or two towards him on tiptoe, halted, clasped both hands over her dancing-shoes, and exclaimed, with a deeper thrill than before:–
‘You are Colonel Baigent!’
‘Eh?’ The colonel sat bolt upright.
‘Yes; and Aunt Louisa will be glad!’
He put a hand up to the crown of his head. ‘Good Lord!’ he murmured, staring wildly around the room, and then slowly fastening his gaze upon the child–at most she could not be more than nine years old– confronting him. ‘Good Lord! Will she?’
‘Yes; and so am I!’ She nodded, and her eyes seemed to be devouring while they worshipped him. ‘But wasn’t it clever of me to know you at once?’
‘It’s–it’s about the cleverest thing I’ve come across in all my born days,’ stammered Colonel Baigent, collapsing into his chair, and then suddenly clutching the arms of it and peering forward.
‘But, of course, I’ve known you for ever so long, really,’ she went on, and nodded again as if to reassure him.
‘Oh! “of course,” is it? I–I say, won’t you sit down and have a nut or two–or a fig?’
‘Thank you.’ She gave him quite a grown-up bow, and seated herself. ‘I’ll take a fig; nuts give you the indigestion at this time of night.’ She picked up a fig demurely, and laid it on a plate he pushed towards her. ‘I hope I’m behaving nicely?’ she said, looking up at him with the most engaging candour; ‘because Aunt Louisa says you always had the most beautiful manners. In fact, that’s what made her take to you, long–oh! ever so long–before you became famous. And now you’re the Bayard of India!’
‘But, excuse me–‘
She had begun to munch her fig, but interrupted him with another nod.
‘Yes, I know what you are going to say. That’s the name they give to another general out in India, don’t they? But Aunt Louisa declares he won’t hold a candle to you–though I don’t know why he should want to do anything of the sort.’
‘It’s uncommonly kind of your Aunt Louisa–‘ he began again.
‘Do you know her?’ the child asked, with disconcerting directness.
‘That’s just the trouble with me’ Colonel Baigent confessed.
‘She is my great-aunt, really. She lives in Little Swithun, right at the back of Dean’s Close; and her name is on a brass plate–a very hard name to pronounce, “Miss Lapenotiere, Dancing and Calisthenics”–that’s another hard word, but it means things you do with an elastic band to improve your figure. The plate doesn’t azackly tell the truth, because she has been an invalid for years now, and Aunt Netta–that’s my other aunt–had to carry on the business. But everybody knows about it, so there really is no deceit. Aunt Netta’s name is Wallas, and so is mine. Her mother was sister to Aunt Louisa, and she tells us we come of very good family. She never married. I don’t believe she ever wanted to marry anybody but you, and now it’s too late. But I call it splendid, your turning up like this. And on Christmas Eve, to!’
‘It’s beginning to be splendid,’ owned the colonel, who had partly recovered himself. ‘Unhappily–since you put it so–it is, I fear, a fact that I never met your Aunt Louisa.’
‘Oh! but you did–in the street, and once in the post office, when you were a boy at the college.’
‘Such impressions are fleeting, my dear, as you will live to prove. Your other aunt, Miss Netta–‘
‘Oh! she will have been born after your time,’ said the child, with calm, unconscious cruelty. ‘But you will see her presently. She has gone to the bar to pay the bill, and when she has finished disputing it she is bound to call for me.’
As if it had been waiting to confirm the prophecy, a voice called, ‘Charis! Charis!’ almost on the instant.
‘That’s my name,’ said the child, helping herself to another fig, as a middle-aged face, wrinkled, with a complexion of parchment under a mass of tow-coloured hair, peered in at the doorway.
The colonel rose. ‘Your niece, madam,’ he began, ‘has been entertaining me for these ten minutes–‘
With that he stopped, perceiving that, after a second glance at him, the eyes of Aunt Netta, too, were growing round in her head.
‘Charis, you naughty child! Sir, I do hope–but she has been troubling you, I am sure–‘ stammered Aunt Netta, and came to a full stop.
Charis clapped her hands, with a triumphant little laugh.
‘But I knew him first!’ she exclaimed, ‘Yes, Aunt Netta, it’s him!– it’s him, him, HIM! And isn’t it just perfectly glorious?’
‘You must excuse my niece, sir–that is to say, if you are really Colonel–‘
‘Baigent, ma’am. I think you know my name; though how or why that should be, passes my comprehension.’
She bowed to him, timidly, a trifle stiffly. ‘It is an honour to have met you, sir. I have an aunt at home, an invalid, who will be very proud when she hears of this. She has followed your career with great interest–I believe I may say, ever since you were a boy at the college. She has talked about you so often, you must forgive the child for being excited. Come, Charis! Thank Colonel Baigent, and say good-night.’
‘But isn’t he coming with us?’ The child’s face fell, and her voice was full of dismay. ‘Oh! but you must! Aunt Louisa will cry her eyes out if you don’t. And on Christmas Eve, too!’
Colonel Baigent looked at Miss Netta.
‘I couldn’t ask it–I really couldn’t,’ she murmured.
He smiled. ‘The hour is unconventional, to be sure. But if your aunt will forgive a very brief call there is nothing would give me greater pleasure.’
He meant it, too!
He fetched his hat, and the three passed out together–down the High Street, through the passage by the Butter Cross, and along the railed pavement by the Minster Close. On the colonel’s ear their three footfalls sounded as though a dream. The vast bulk of the minster, glimmering above the leafless elms, the solid Norman tower with its edges bathed in starlight, were transient things, born of faery, unsubstantial as the small figure that tripped ahead of him clutching a pair of dancing-shoes.
They came to a little low house, hooded with dark tiles and deeply set in a narrow garden. A dwarf wall and paling divided it from the Close, and from the gate, where a brass plate twinkled, a flagged, uneven pathway led up to the front door. So remote it lay from all traffic, so well screened by the shadow of the minster, that the inmates had not troubled to draw blind or curtain. Miss Netta, pausing while she fumbled for the latchkey, explained that her aunt had a fancy to keep the blinds up, so that when the minster was lit for evensong she might watch the warm, painted windows without moving from her couch.
Colonel Baigent, glancing at the pane towards which she waved a hand, caught one glimpse of the room within, and stood still, with a catch of his breath. On the wall facing him hung an Oxford frame, and in the frame was a cheap woodcut, clipped from an old illustrated paper of the Mutiny date, and fastened in that place of honour–his own portrait!
After that, for a few minutes, his head swam. He was dimly aware of what followed: of an open door; of the child running past him and into the room with cries of joy and explanation, a few only articulate; of the little old figure that half rose from the couch and sank back trembling; the flush on the waxen face, the violet ribbons in the cap, the hand that trembled as it reached out, incredulous in its humility, to his own. He took it, and her other hand rested a moment on the back of his, as though it fluttered a blessing.
Yes; and her hands, when he released them–and it seemed that he had been holding an imprisoned bird–yet trembled on the coverlet after her voice had found steadiness.
‘An honour–a great honour!’ it was saying. ‘You will forgive the liberty?’ She nodded towards the portrait. ‘We are not quite strangers, you see. I have always followed your career, sir. I knew you would grow into a great and worthy man, ever since the day when I dropped a bandbox in the street–a muddy day it was!–and the box burst open just as you were passing with half a dozen young gentlemen from the college. The rest laughed; and when I began to cry–for the ribbons were muddied–they laughed still more. Do you remember?’
Colonel Baigent had not the faintest recollection of it.
‘Ah! but it all happened. And you–you were the only one that did not laugh. You picked up the box and wiped it with your handkerchief. You tried to wipe the ribbons, too; but that only made matters worse. And then, when the others made fun of you, you put the box under your arm, and said you were going to carry it home for me. And so you did, though it made you late for your books; and besides, our house was out of bounds, and you risked a thrashing for it.’
‘I wonder if I got it?’ murmured Colonel Baigent.
‘I knew nothing about the school bounds at the time, or I should never have allowed you! And on the way you asked me if I had hurt myself in falling. I told you “No”; but that was a fib, for my hip was growing weak even then. It’s by reason of my hip that I have to lie here. But in those days there was no one else to take the dancing classes, and it would never have done to confess. And–and that was all. I only met you once after that–it was in the post office at St Swithun’s, and you ran in to get a stamp. I was standing by the counter, weighing a letter; and you, being in a hurry, did not recognise me. But I asked the old postmistress your name. Do you remember her?’
‘She knew everybody’s name,’ said the colonel. ‘And so that was all?’
‘That was all, except that my blessing has gone with you, sir, from that day. Man and boy it has gone with you.’
‘Ma’am, if I had guessed it, some weary days in India might have been less weary.’
So they sat talking for a while; but, by degrees, the invalid’s eyes had grown pre-occupied.
‘Netta, dear,’ she asked at length, ‘do you think we might ask the colonel to honour us by sharing our Christmas dinner to-morrow?’
In that luckless moment Colonel Baigent glanced up, caught sight of Miss Netta’s face, and saw that in it which made his own colour to the roots of his hair. Then he gave a gulp, and faced the situation like the brave man he was.
‘Ma’am,’ he said gently, ‘you have taken me for a friend, and God knows, my friends are few enough. I am going to treat you as a very old friend, and to dismiss all tact. You will eat your Christmas dinner with me to-morrow, here, in this house.’
On his way back to the hotel Colonel Baigent halted to stare up at the minster tower. So much of his life had been spent under the shadow of it!–and yet, of all his sowing, one small act alone, long forgotten, had taken root here and survived.
In his dreams next morning he heard the minster bell ringing for early service. In his dreams, for a stroke or two, the remembered note of it carried him back to boyhood. Then he awoke with a start, and jumped out of bed.
Far up the hill the bugles from the barracks challenged the note of the bell. Over the muslin blind drawn half-way across his window the sun shone on a clear, frosty morning; and in the haze of it, as he dressed, his eyes rested, across the clustered roofs, on an angle of the minster tower, and beyond it on the hill with the quarry hewn in its side, and the clump of trees remembered of all who in boyhood have been sons of the city’s famous school.
He dressed rapidly. The street below had not yet awakened to Christmas Day, and the colonel, with Christmas in his heart, felt eager as a messenger of good news.
An hour later, as he returned, all refreshed in soul, from the minster, he ran against the second waiter, blinking in the sunlight on the door-step of the hotel, and looking as though he had slept in his evening suit.
‘I want breakfast at once,’ said the colonel; ‘and for luncheon you may put me up a basket.’
‘There was to have been a cold turkey,’ said the waiter, ‘it being Christmas Day.’
‘Put in the turkey, then–the whole turkey, please–and two bottles of champagne. I’ll take my luncheon out.’
‘Two bottles, sir, did I understand you to say?’
‘Certainly. Two bottles.’
‘Which the amount for corkage is cruel,’ said the waiter as he delivered his order at the office. ‘My word, and what an appetite! But I done him an injustice in one respec’. He do seem to be every inch a gentleman.’
So the waiter’s verdict, after all, sounded much the same as Miss Lapenotiere’s. And the conclusion seems to be that you can not only say the same thing in different ways, but quite different things in identical words.